Assad pummels key rebel province with ship mines

  • Date 12 July 2015
  • Publication The Sunday Times

BULLETS, bombs and explosive barrels have long been a feature of Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to quell dissent in the southern province of Daraa, birthplace of the rebellion against the Syrian president’s brutal rule.

Residents are now reporting a new, even more potent and indiscriminate instrument of death: naval mines, designed to destroy armoured ships, that regularly tumble from regime helicopters, leaving craters 15ft deep and up to 30ft wide.

Their explosive power has been a devastating addition to an already brutal bombing campaign directed at the first town to rise up against Assad’s regime. Witnesses to the deployment of the new weapon report that the mines are smaller than barrel bombs and can be distinguished as they fall from above by their bright red colour.

Rebel medical facilities have been targeted in a blitz of naval mines and explosive barrels. Six Daraa field hospitals have closed, among them the only one equipped to provide neonatal and dialysis services, since the attacks began in May.

“It’s completely abnormal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Abu Khaled, a witness, said of the crater left by a mine that fell on a Daraa village.

Wounded Syrians are rushed over the border to Jordan every day for medical treatment after suffering blast injuries. Doctors at a clinic run by Médecins sans Frontières in Ramtha, three miles from the border, say they have seen rising numbers of grievously wounded patients. About 70% of recent admissions have suffered blast injuries.

Last week, over three days, a record number of casualties — 34 altogether — arrived at Ramtha; among them was a 27-day-old baby boy named Majed, who was struck in the head by shrapnel during an aerial bombardment. Before this campaign, administrators said, the clinic would have seen a handful of new patients each day.

“It’s striking that almost all of the cases we see are multiple injuries,” said Helena Aineskog, a Swedish surgeon on a voluntary assignment with Médecins sans Frontières.

“Almost every hour we hear explosions over the border,” she added. “It’s more a consistent background sound.

“The difficult part is when I hear so many explosions over the border but I don’t see so many patients. I wonder where they are.”

According to residents of Daraa City, East Ghariya and Naema, many of those struck in the increasingly frequent attacks do not survive. Locals say naval mines are now used in about 30% of aerial attacks.

The Syrian government has a store of 6,000 of the Russian-made mines dating back to the 1980s. Their sporadic use has been documented since the conflict began in 2011. But the new campaign in Daraa appears to be a response to a long-awaited rebel offensive to push the Syrian regime out of Daraa City, the province’s capital. If the rebels succeed in ousting regime forces, they could open up the southern approach to Damascus.

Despite reverses elsewhere, support for the rebellion is still strong in the area. Critically for foreign backers, including the US and Britain, the southern Syrian opposition claims to support a secular, democratic Syria.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is Daraa’s main opposition group, with 30,000 men in its Southern Front coalition alone. FSA brigades are known to fight alongside Islamist groups including al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra, but insiders say the fighters and their commanders from the two contingents do not mix.

“You say ‘Hi’ to someone from Nusra and your salary gets suspended for a month,” one FSA member said.

The Southern Front and its collaborators finally launched their offensive on June 25. But with efforts split between seven government targets, it sputtered out within days. Rebels have since lost two of the four checkpoints they gained.

One insider blamed loose lips and overconfidence for the loss. “The regime was prepared, defending, and the FSA warned civilians to leave. This tipped the regime off. Every postponement made the regime more ready,” he said.

The Syrian regime, overstretched after four years of civil war, is using a range of tools to quash Daraa’s rebels — not only the naval mines but also tanks. It is a key battleground, the more so because the rebels benefit from cross-border support. In mid-May the Syrian government lodged complaints with the UN, alleging Jordan was facilitating the training of the people it calls “foreign terrorists”.

Jordan has long served as a launchpad for international efforts to train, arm and organise the last Syrian opposition supporters who still claim to want a democratic Syria for all Syrians. American, British, French, Saudi and Qatari expertise is known to be funnelled into southern Syria through a military operations centre in Amman.

For Jordan and its backers, the southern belt of Syria and the last stand of non-extremist militants who want to defend it could prove a valuable bulwark against a push by Isis, which has yet to establish a meaningful presence in Daraa.

A rebel-controlled Daraa could also be the first step towards creating a long- hinted-at buffer zone along the border, allowing the return of more than a million Syrian refugees from their camps in Jordan. Major Issam al-Reis, spokesman for the Southern Front, said the battle for Daraa could yet prove decisive — not just for Syria’s future but for the global fight against Isis — but warned that capturing the capital would be a considerable challenge.

“People are saying if Daraa and Quneitra fall, these key arcs between here and Damascus, that the way to Damascus will be easy,” he said.

“That’s not so. But if the south falls, Assad will be under pressure for a political solution.”